Although J.G. Ballard had many short stories published, it was his second novel, The Drowned World, published in 1962 that established him as a writer of note, infusing his work with the emotional significance of ravaged landscapes and destroyed technology.
Dr Kerans was among a group of scientists studying the effects of the Earth’s transformation. Some six decades earlier severe solar storms stripped away much of the ionosphere and left the planet prey to increased solar radiation, which resulted in the polar ice melting and the oceans rising. Now, he and the team – comprising Dr Bodkin, Lieutenant Harman, Colonel Riggs, Beatrice Dahl and several troopers – dwelled on a waterborne testing station in a sunken London which more and more resembled the Triassic age. ‘Like an immense putrescent sore, the jungle lay exposed below the open hatchway of the helicopter. Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the roof-tops of the submerged buildings…’ (p53). There were islands of silt, where exotic plant-life thrived and alligators roamed as their primordial ancestors had aeons ago. ‘A thick cloacal stench exuded from the silt flat, a corona of a million insects pulsing and humming hungrily above it…’ (p61) Enclaves of the surviving population existed in the northern pole area.
Confusing disorientating dreams invaded the group’s consciousness, while waking and sleeping. Kerans believes humankind is regressing mentally to a prehistoric age, doubtless affected by the heat of the sun, minds entering ‘time jungles’ of uterine dreams, submerging into their amniotic past, experiencing archaic memories: ‘However selective the conscious mind may be, most biological memories are unpleasant ones, echoes of danger and terror. Nothing endures for so long as fear.’ (p43)
What set Ballard apart from a lot of his contemporary sci-fi writers was his mastery of the metaphor and his ability to describe in effective detail the cataclysmic worlds he envisaged. Such as: ‘like the heady vapours of some spectral grail.’ (p46). Or: ‘Overhead the sky was vivid and marbled, the black bowl of the lagoon, by contrast, infinitely deep and motionless, like an immense well of amber.’ (p47) And: ‘Now and then, in the glass curtain-walling of the surrounding buildings, they see countless reflection s of the sun move across the surface in huge sheets of fire, like the blazing faceted eyes of gigantic insects.’ (p40)
Not a great deal happens, perhaps echoed here: ‘… a white monitor lizard sat and regarded him with its stony eyes, waiting for something to happen.’ The heat, the humidity, the pressure on the brain, all combined to wear them all down: when it came time for Riggs to move the team north, there was considerable reluctance to go: the ennui of lotus eaters corrupted their reality. However, escape, conflict and encounters with renegade groups liven things up.
Like many of his tales, this book depicts the gradual disintegration, both physically and mentally, of a man. Significantly, Ballard uses the phrase ‘Day of Judgement’ twice.
Interestingly, when Ballard writes ‘Staring out over the immense loneliness of this dead terminal beach, he soon fell into an exhausted sleep’ (p168), he is using the title of a short story published in New Worlds in 1964: ‘Terminal Beach’, which later became the title of a collection of his stories.
Two main protagonists are Kerans and Riggs – both names
ending with an ‘es’. There’s nothing wrong with this, but some writers tend to
avoid adopting such names, primarily because of the possessive apostrophe – Kerans’s
or Kerans’, for example – which can appear clumsy.
‘… a warning shell from his flare pistol.’ (p31) ‘Warning’ seems incongruous since flares invariably were used to signal distress, not a warning.
Good to see he uses the phrase ‘he murmured to himself’ (p34) instead of the ludicrous but ever popular phrase among many published writers, ‘he thought to himself’.
‘He was talking to Beatrice and I when it happened…’ – should be ‘Beatrice and me’.
‘His bare feet sank into the soft carpeting…’ (p149), This would be disastrous for his bare feet, as the place had been seriously vandalised with broken glass everywhere!